Shoot Out At the Pembina Post Office
by Jim Benjaminson
In the annals of western
outlawry, certain names have been etched into the American psyche –
names such as
Jesse and Frank James, the
Kid, Black Bart and
Sam Bass, just to name a few. For the most part,
their villainous exploits took place in parts of the country far remote
from rural North Dakota. The closest any of them got to North Dakota was
the James Gangs ill-fated attempt at robbing the bank in Northfield,
Minnesota and the Bass gangs robbing of seven stage coaches in the Black
Hills of South Dakota. Still, the effect of one outlaw’s exploits
rippled to the tiny town of Pembina, Dakota Territory in 1878.
Sam Bass was a young Texas outlaw who headquartered himself in Denton,
Texas. Teamed up with the outlaw
Joel Collins and four others, the Bass
gang staged the largest train robbery in U.S. history (at the time) when
they held up the Union Pacific railroad at a tiny watering hole called
Big Springs, Nebraska on the evening of September 18, 1877. Although
Bass was considered leader of the gang, law enforcement claimed Joel
Collins was the brains of the outfit. The gang rode into the stop over,
made hostages of the station master and several others in the vicinity,
cut the telegraph lines and waited. When the train pulled in for water,
one gang member swung himself into the cab of the locomotive and took
the engineer and fireman hostage while the others headed for the baggage
City of Pembina, North Dakota in
1910. Photo courtesy of
When they rode off into the night, the gang had relieved the railroad of
$60,000 in freshly minted 1877 twenty dollar gold pieces. Dividing up
the treasure, each man had 500 gold coins in his possession – about 35
pounds of gold per gang member. The group split into three groups of two
men, each heading in a different direction. Word spread fast about the
robbery and law enforcement swooped in on the area. One of the gang
members disappeared and was never heard of again (many assumed he had
gone to Canada). Joel Collins and his partner didn't fare as well, being
intercepted by a posse within days. After a brief shoot-out, both
outlaws were dead and $20,000 of the gold coins were recovered.
Bass and his partner figured two lone riders would be suspicious so they
acquired a buggy, stashed the coins under the seat and rode blissfully
by the bands of law officers they encountered. Returning to Denton, Bass
enjoyed the high life, spending freely and enjoying a local sort of hero
worship. He had plenty of friends to warn him of approaching trouble and
knowing the area like the back of his hand, he could easily hide from
pursuers. Living the high life the money soon ran out and Bass returned
to his old ways. Organizing a new gang, he returned to robbing trains.
Only this time he chose to hit the local railroads – his gang robbing
four trains in quick succession within a 25 mile radius of his base of
operation. It was at this point the locals turned on him and his gang.
For seven weeks, the gang was pursued by a company of
U.S. Marshals and local law enforcement, all to no avail (although an
accomplice, "Arkansas" Johnson, was killed in a skirmish from which the
rest of the gang escaped).
Bass' downfall came at the hands of a spy that infiltrated the gang –
and by gang member
Jim Murphy who betrayed him in exchange for having
charges dropped against himself and his father. The fatal day came when
the gang rode into Round Rock, Texas intent on robbing the local bank.
Laying in wait were the Texas Rangers and local law enforcement. In a
brief bloody shootout, one deputy sheriff was killed as was one of the
outlaws. Bass himself was wounded but managed to clamber onto to his
horse and ride away. The trailing posse found him the next day, lying
under a tree, still alive but mortally wounded. Death came to Sam Bass
July 21, 1878 – it was his 27th birthday.
Of the participants in the April 10th train robbery at Mesquite, Texas,
six of the eight robbers had either been killed or were in prison by the
time of Bass’ death. The robbery had netted each of the bandits the
paltry sum of $23 each! One of the gang – William Collins, was arrested
days after the robbery and taken to Austin to stand trial. He was moved
to the jail in Dallas in June where a family friend posted a $15,000
bond to secure his appearance in court—a date he did not intend to keep.
Sam Bass Gang.
photo courtesy City of Roundrock, Tx and Robert G. McCubbin, Jr.
L-R: Sam Bass, William Collins, John E. Gardner, and Joel Collins
A brother to outlaw Joel Collins who had participated in the earlier Big
Springs train robbery, William Collins jumped bail and headed north,
roaming across several states before eventually ending up in Pembina,
Dakota Territory working as a bartender in Jim White’s saloon, a unique
watering hole that straddled the border. A red stripe painted on the
floor designated which country a patron was in – the saloon on the U.S.
side of the line, with the kitchen and sitting room on the Canadian
side. Known to the locals as William Gale, Collins befriended a local
man, Robert Ewing, finally telling Ewing his real name and confiding he
had a wife living in Dallas. Gale/Collins asked Ewing to write her a
letter, which apparently Ewing did. One can only speculate but it is
assumed authorities were watching her mail. It wasn't long before a
deputy U.S. marshal arrived in Pembina looking for Collins.
Appointed as a deputy
marshal in 1872, 38-year old William Anderson
was determined to bring Collins in. Arriving in Pembina, Anderson first
sought out local deputy U.S. marshal Judson LaMoure and Pembina county
sheriff Charlie Brown (Brown served from 1876 to 1884), asking their
assistance in capturing Bill Collins, a.k.a. William Gale. It would be
easier to make the arrest, Anderson said, if LaMoure and Brown went
without him as he was “personally known” by Collins. With information
that Collins was tending bar in White’s Saloon the two lawmen ventured
to the boundary to make the collar. Bellying up to the bar, both men
ordered drinks, hoping to catch Collins off guard in order to get the
drop on him. It had been noted earlier that Collins had a habit of
always taking the "gun fighters seat", never turning his back to a door
or window. Both LaMoure and Brown tried to get Collins to compromise his
position but when their attempts failed, they left without their man.
Collins was apparently aware Anderson was in town and looking for him as
he is supposed to have told Sheriff Brown he expected to "have it out"
with the Texas lawman.
When Anderson learned his man hadn't been apprehended he approached
postmaster and customs officer Charles Cavileer about using the post
office to capture Collins. Cavileer went along with Anderson' plan to
nab Collins and Anderson took up residence in the building. It was
Friday, November 8, 1878. From here we pick up the story as it was
recalled by James R. Moorhead (son of William H. Moorhead, first sheriff
of Pembina County) for Win V. Working of the Grand Forks Herald.
Moorhead and other young boys were playing near the post office when the
final scene was played out. Moorhead stated “it was growing late in the
afternoon although the sun was still warm. Anderson lay on a bench in
the office. Cavileer was sorting mail. He looked out the window and saw
Collins approaching. "Here comes your man now" he called to the marshal.
Anderson sprang from the bench, examined his six-shooter and stepping
around the counter, took a position a few feet from the door. When
Collins entered, Anderson ordered him softly to throw up his hands.
Collins complied and began to talk. Collins let his hand drop bit by bit
when suddenly his right hand flashed to the inside of his shirt. Just
before his fingers gripped the butt of his six-shooter, which hung in a
harness under his left armpit, Anderson fired. The bullet clipped off
most of the end of Collins right thumb up to the first joint and passed
through his chest just above the heart.
Although mortally wounded, Collins was still able to draw his weapon.
Moorhead continued: "Collins fired and Anderson ran to the rear of the
room and fled through the kitchen door before the wounded Collins could
bring his gun up again to fire a second time. During the shooting the
group of young boys which included James Moorhead's brother, Shep and a
boy named Joe Bouvette, were sitting on an "open stairway" with other
youths peeking through a rear window of the post office. Collins first
bullet passed within an inch of a lad named Ira Davis, according to
Moorhead. The wounded desperado worked his way past the stove to a point
where he had a clear view of the kitchen door. Anderson returned and
peered cautiously through the open door, but he exposed part of his body
and Collins shot him through the doorway before the bad man fell to the
street. When the smoke cleared, both men lay dead.
The official marshal service report tells pretty much the same tale, the
only exception being that Anderson grabbed Collins left arm and asked
another person in the post office to secure Collins right arm, when
Collins broke away and drew his weapon.
In true western fashion, both men “died with their boots on”. But
Anderson died wearing something else….a pair of gold cuff links—gold
cuff links given to him on the day of his marriage by his best man –
William Collins. Although William Anderson was several years older, he
and William Collins had gone to school together and each had been the
best man at the others wedding. Somewhere along the line they had gone
their separate ways – one becoming a
lawman, the other an
William Anderson left behind a wife and two children; his family
received the $10,000 reward offered for the arrest of Collins. William
Anderson's body was shipped back to Texas where it rests in the
Greenwood Cemetery in Dallas. William Collin's body was buried in an
unmarked grave in Pembina.
Pembina, ND Post
Office, 1863. Photo courtesy
City of Pembina,
The old post office in Pembina stood until May of 1883 when it was
demolished. Built in 1864 it had served as the U.S. Customs house, the
first post office and home of Pembina's first post master, Charles
Cavileer. Upon its demolition, the Pembina paper commented "it has
served its day and generation (and) has to submit to the destroyer. In
the old front door is a bullet hole, the relic of a terrible tragedy
which occurred some five years ago, when a detective and a desperado
exchanged mutually fatal shots, both expiring in a few minutes" --- the
bloody legacy of
Sam Bass, Texas
Excerpted from "Murder and Mayhem in Pembina County" still in
A portion of the telegram sent by the
US Marshal of West Texas to the U.S. Attorney General advising of the deaths
of William Anderson and William Collins. Photo courtesy of Jim Benjaminson.
(click for larger version)
About the author: Jim Benjaminson is a
retired 32 year veteran of the North Dakota State Highway Patrol, Motor
Carrier Operations. Prior to that he was a deputy sheriff with the Pembina
County Sheriff's department, the oldest in North Dakota dating back to 1867.
Benjaminson is a life long resident of North Dakota, growing up in Cavalier,
which is the county seat of Pembina County. He currently lives in
Walhalla North Dakota and has been involved in the
County Historical Society for many years as a past historian, President,
and now Vice President and Director.
In addition to writing history on law
enforcement, Benjaminson is an avid antique automobile collector, historian,
writer and photographer, with published works in magazines including Special
Interest Autos, Collectible Automobile, North Dakota History, North Dakota
Peace Officers and others. He was also a major contributor to the Standard
Catalog of American Cars, 1805-1942 encyclopedia, and has written three
books on the history of Plymouth and De Soto automobiles.
Springs Train Robbery
Sam Bass and
His Train Robber Gang
Collins - Cowboy Outlaw of the Black Hills
Jim Murphy -
Betrayer of the Bass Gang
Marshals - Two Centuries of Bravery
Old West Lawmen
Old West Photo
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